Can teens study the Bible on non-sectarian terms? This project says ... yes they can

Few if any U.S. media noted that Nov. 12–18 was National Bible Week, but the origin of the observance has feature potential for this time next year.

That’s because in 1941 the NBC radio network, with the blessing of President Roosevelt, launched the first Bible Week by devoting a Sunday to on-air readings from the Good Book, something unimaginable in 2018. And as it happened, the chosen date was Dec. 7, so Scripture had to be interspersed with breaking news bulletins on Japan’s Pearl Harbor attack.

Here’s a different bid for biblical penetration of culture, in case your outlet hasn’t covered it yet. Since 2005, the non-profit Essentials in Education (E.I.E.) of New York City has campaigned for U.S. public high schools to offer elective courses on the Bible that are academically valid, fully legal under the U.S. Constitution, and acceptable to believers of any religion –- or none.   

E.I.E. does this with “The Bible and Its Influence,” its innovative and carefully non-sectarian textbook, sold in print and digital formats. The publication (.pdf here) benefits from a notably broad lineup of 40 consultants, with lawyers and public school educators alongside Jewish, “mainline” Protestant, evangelical, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Mormon representatives.

To date, “Influence” has been taught in 640 schools in 44 states (the exceptions are Delaware, Iowa, Montana, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming). Nine states have passed laws that encourage schools to offer such non-sectarian Bible courses (Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas and Kentucky, which joined the list in June).

The latest angle, discussed at an Oct. 24 presser, is efforts to go global. There have been discussions with members of parliament in Brazil, Finland and Great Britain;  pilot projects in Canada, Rwanda, South Korea, Taiwan and Communist China; and academic conferences on this concept in Australia, the Philippines and even Hindu-dominated India.

In October, E.I.E. surveyed 1,007 parents of U.S. teens (online, not a scientific sample via phone) that showed only 55 percent knew it’s legal for public schools to teach Bible content in an academic and objective manner. The U.S. Supreme Court actually encouraged such education in its 1963 decision that banned school Bible recitations that had a devotional flavor.

Yet 75 percent of the parents wanted such courses if they are legal, and 80 percent thought they’d help students’ comprehension of art, literature and music. E.I.E. is ever ready to provide quotes from high school and college teachers about the importance of Bible knowledge for a well-rounded education, e.g. those 1,200 scriptural allusions in Shakespeare.

If a journalist wants to include grim humor, E.I.E. can also supply surveys showing U.S. youths’ astonishing ignorance on Bible basics. Or consider a kneeslapper when Alabama state Auditor Jim Zeigler sought to justify Senate candidate Roy Moore’s alleged sexual harassment of a 14-year-old girl: “Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter. They became parents of Jesus. There’s just nothing immoral or illegal here.” Oops. Matthew 1:18 or Luke 1:34-35, anyone?

E.I.E. is led by Chuck Stetson, 71, a lay Catholic and co-managing director of a private equity firm. He co-authored “Influence” with McGraw-Hill textbook veteran Cullen Schippe. 

The project has not escaped controversy. Upon launch, “Influence” was blessed by a prime advocate of strict church-state separation, General Counsel Marc Stern of the American Jewish Committee, but assailed by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which saw a conservative plot. Why, Stetson’s granddad worked with Republican Senator-to-be Prescott Bush, while Stetson himself was a friend of prison evangelist Chuck Colson and attended a Promise Keepers event!

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